For the third time in the last hour, he pulled his phone out of his suit jacket and pressed the power button. What he read on the display hadn’t changed much since his last check.
Date: March 14th, 2017. Time: 11:47PM. Temperature: 88°.
There were no new text messages or emails.
Texas was uncomfortable, even at the very best of times. For some reason, this March was positively sweltering. There was so much humidity rolling in from the gulf that he wasn’t sure if the moisture on his face even belonged to him. The string tie, he decided, had been a much better choice than anything more conventional. The classic Stetson on his head…less so.
“The things we do,” he muttered. There wasn’t anyone around to hear him. The wide stretch of prairie where he crouched was devoid of any other human life for miles around. Still, the sound of a voice, even his own, helped to keep him anchored. It was an old-school trick, but its age didn’t change its efficacy. After all, this was hardly the first time he’d been forced to hide in the bush, waiting for ungodly lengths of time.
He checked his phone again – 11:49, now – and sighed. The phone went back into his jacket. After a bit of rummaging, it was replaced by his last six inches of beef jerky, which he absently began to chew. The simple, repetitive action helped to clear his thoughts normally. Tonight wasn’t any different.
The meeting scheduled in the last eleven or so minutes was alleged to be one of the annual face-to-face chats between the heads of at least two major crime families. Every year, the location of said meeting changed, and it had cost him dearly to find out where this year’s meeting was supposed to be held. He could only hope that his expenditures would yield dividends when midnight struck. Otherwise, he would have wasted an entire trip back home and walked away with nothing to show for it.
Well, that wasn’t exactly true. He had uncovered several pliable individuals within two of those organizations and he hadn’t known about them before. With time, those assets could be developed, coerced, or encouraged to reveal even more secrets. Those secrets would inevitably be worth something to someone. They always were.
He smiled in the darkness. There was something poetic about that. Everyone acknowledged that he simply knew things, yet no one had the faintest idea how. They probably assumed that he had access to some superior bugging technology or that he blackmailed people or that he was the head of some as-yet-unknown faction preparing to reveal themselves and make a move. Powerful people always forgot about the little guys, though. He should know; hadn’t they forgotten about him, once upon a time?
His grin faded as, in the distance, a prairie dog raised a cry and other members of its species joined in. It wasn’t that the wildlife frightened him in any meaningful way; except where firearms were prohibited, he made a point to keep a Smith and Wesson in one boot and a Colt Police Special on his hip. The howls still bothered him, though, in a way he couldn’t quite name. He changed his position, grumbled, and eventually sat down in the dirt without any concern for his clothing.
In better times, he would have simply paid a local to do this sort of on-site eavesdropping or activated an embedded asset to report the conversation later, but these weren’t better times. Not anymore. Since the absolute destruction of Hill’s power base in London, followed by the public spectacle of his death shortly thereafter, every criminal business and enterprise on three different continents had gone into panic mode. Employee records were checked and double-checked; draconian password policies were implemented; those who had grown fat through theft, graft, or intimidation had hired small armies to protect themselves; and, perhaps most damaging to anyone in his trade, the pool of loose lips had dried up to a puddle, seemingly overnight.
On the bright side, the abrupt radio silence that the criminal underworlds had suddenly fallen into had, as a natural response, increased the value of rumors, secrets, and whispers. No one knew who or what had happened to Hill, but everyone was scared of something similar happening to them. Paranoia led individuals who had scorned his services before to offer ludicrous sums in exchange for the thinnest affirmation that their rivals were or were not planning an attack.
The collective increase in security hadn’t protected them from anything.
Six weeks after the London drug trade came apart at the seams, a gambling ring in southeast China had imploded. Literally millions of dollars vanished overnight and the people in charge of that enterprise found themselves without the protection their wealth had provided. As the powerful bankers disappeared into the bowls of their government’s secret prisons, mortgages and loans had either been mysteriously paid off or otherwise forgiven.
Five months after that, three African warlords who had been managing a moderately successful arms smuggling business abruptly opened fire on each other. Their forces had been devastated yet, when the dust settled, not a single one of the three could actually explain what had made them come to blows. Worse, without their small scale armies, they were powerless against the mob of oppressed citizens who miraculously got their hands on a cache of stolen weapons.
Someone was making moves, obviously, and it seemed like no one was safe. On the surface, the incidents in London, China, and Sierra Leone had nothing to do with each other. But, to someone with their ear to the pulse of the underworld, there was an eerie symmetry that couldn’t be ignored. All three of the organizations destroyed had made their millions or billions by trafficking in the pain and misery of an oppressed and exploited citizenry. And, as the people who had been in charge fell, that power had been restored to the people. It was almost noble, except that good people didn’t even know about the people who had been taken out.
It was a puzzle, without a solution. Who would be hit next? How? Could it be avoided? Could it be turned into an advantage? Questions coming from all corners, and there simply weren’t any answers to provide.
In less than two months, the information trade had become a seller’s market. He was happy about that, obviously. He knew perfectly well, however, that the bubble wouldn’t last indefinitely. Eventually, someone with more power than patience would make a move and he needed to know about that before anyone else. A few weeks of forewarning could mean the difference between emerging from the quagmire with new, powerful connections and ending up on the trash pile with anyone not fast enough or smart enough to get out of the way.
Thus, why he now found himself waiting at the Texas-Mexico border, sweating through his expensive clothing, checking and obsessively re-checking his phone.
He finished off the jerky and reached for his phone, intending to see how much longer it would take, but stopped when he saw a caravan of trucks speeding across the land only a few miles away. There was a dense cluster of tall plants about thirty yards away, closer to the caravan’s destination. It only took him a second of consideration before he gathered his gear and moved, one hand on his hat to keep it from falling off in his haste. He had just enough time to get himself properly settled and concealed before a second group of noisy motorcycles, traveling on a direct collision course with the force, became visible.
The lead SUV in the first caravan and the head motorocyle in the second stopped less than a thousand feet away from where he hid, signaling the rest of their respective packs to do the same. Armed men, at least two dozen on each side, spilled out onto the land, and took up protective positions like the well-trained matchstick men that they were.
He didn’t immediately recognize anyone among the security forces, but he did know the aged Albanian man who stepped down from one of the SUVs: Besnik Nikolla, patriarch of the Nikolla family. His clan was one of the largest in the country, although that was a relatively new honor. It was only through allying with powerful organizations in foreign countries, avoiding outright conflict, and brilliant maneuvering that they’d managed to crush or consume their nearby competition. Getting to the top of the hill came with its own challenges, unfortunately, and Besnik was currently in the middle of a power struggle with a young up-and-comer from within his own ranks.
Showing up in person, instead of sending an intermediary, sent a message: My power is in no danger; see, the troubles at home are not even worthy of my direct attention.
The man with the binoculars wondered if that was actually true. The upstart Fatos Nikolla was charismatic and ambitious. What he lacked in Besnik’s gift for strategy, he more than made up for in personality. Still, not showing up would have sent an even louder message, and no one was in any position to allow even the implication of weakness.
Besnik grudgingly accepted the aid of a guard, who helped him out of the SUV, while another man set up a wheelchair for him to use. They accomplished the transfer in short order and Besnik, breathing for the first time in a while without the aid of an oxygen tank, lit a cigarette. Another message, maybe, or simply his addiction overriding his common sense.
The rider of the head motorcycle got off of his bike, callously disdaining the use of a kickstand. A member of his own gang quickly stepped forward to catch the motorcycle before it could fall to the ground. The leader took off his helmet and dramatically ran a hand through his hair. He was immediately recognizable, as well. This was Matias Koski, the newest – for a given value of newest – leader of United Brotherhood, a Finnish motorcycle gang who trafficked mostly in drugs, with the occasional foray into smuggling.
The man with the binoculars hadn’t worked with Matias specifically, but the Finn’s reputation preceded him. Matias had butchered his way to the top of UB, leaving blood-soaked horror shows in his wake, and only emerged triumphant because no one else had the stomach for the violence he seemed to delight in. It was only a matter of time before someone took him out and, despite his preference to stay politically neutral, the man with the binoculars hoped that a change in leadership took place sooner rather than later.
Matias and Besnik stared each other down for a long time. The man with the binoculars looked away long enough to don a pair of headphones and to point his directional microphone in their general direction. At first, when he heard nothing except the sounds of the prairie, he thought that the device was defective. A moment later, Besnik sighed and the sound of it came through perfectly.
“Matias,” the Albanian said, by way of greeting.
They were silent for about thirty seconds. It was obvious what was happening. Neither crime lord would get into business with anyone without going through the effort of learning their language; at the same time, neither man would be willing to make the concession of using the other’s native tongue.
Finally, by unspoken agreement, they decided to use English, which almost everyone knew. “I do not have much time to spend here,” Besnik said. “You are new to this, but I traditionally discuss business grievances with whoever happens to be here as a representative of the United Brotherhood.”
Translation, from passive-aggressive to plain old aggressive: You’re just the newest flavor, while I have been doing this for some time. I do not expect that you will be doing this for very long, either.
Matias sneered, turned, and spat. “I suppose you can’t afford to be away from your businesses for very long. So many things can go wrong without a firm hand at the rudder to guide the ship, don’t you think?”
Translation: You’re in danger of losing power, and we both know it. I’ll survive you, old man, and I look forward to spitting on your grave.
The man with the binoculars hadn’t expected so much hostility between the two men. Sure, they represented completely opposite ends of the leadership spectrum, but the Nikolla family had profited alongside UB for at least thirty years. It didn’t make sense to antagonize a potential ally in a time of war.
Unless, he realized, they were both afraid that this meeting was only a pretext for an attack. Things were worse than he’d thought if even old alliances were being questioned.
“No need to worry about my house,” Besnik said. “If you do not have concerns, however, I have matters to tend to.”
Matias turned and said something in Finnish to his cohorts. Some of them chuckled, others didn’t. The man with the binoculars got the impression that, whatever Matias had said, it wasn’t funny in the traditional way. “Oh, I have concerns. Where is my share of the business from last quarter?”
“You have your share,” Besnik replied. He blew out a plume of cigarette smoke, designed specifically to hit Matias in the face. “Did you not understand the bookkeeping?”
“What I understand,” Matias sneered, “is that you sent less than half of what my organization normally takes. Did you think you could steal from us without someone noticing?”
Besnik gave his counterpart a long-suffering look. “If you are not actually an idiot, Kolski, then do not act like one. You and I both know that a large part of our business depended on trafficking product through London. We cannot do that until the underworld in that city settles into something resembling order again.”
“Hill’s operation wasn’t that complicated. Surely you could send some men in to control matters, set up a puppet in the short term?”
“I could, but that would be a stupid move. Unless you know who was responsible for bringing him down in the first place?”
The question was half-taunt, half-challenge. The guards on both sides of the meeting felt the tension sharpen. Weapons were lifted fractionally higher, stances widened, and it seemed like everyone held their breath, waiting for the reply.
Matias, despite his demeanor, wasn’t an idiot. He allowed the tension to stretch out for a second before he raised a hand and gestured for his men to stand down. They did so reluctantly and, a moment later, Besnik gave his men the same order.
“No,” Matias said, “I do not. We will have to make do with what you have managed to send us. However, we will have to change our arrangement, unless you can find a way to make up the difference in the next quarter.”
“We already have plans to extend into Colombia.” Besnik finished his cigarette and contemplated another for a second or two. Ultimately, he decided against it. “Hill’s fall was not without its upsides. He held contracts with several cartels who have some promising ideas about smuggling cocaine across country lines.”
Matias snorted. “Which cartels would those be? You can’t mean the Calis or the Morenos.”
“And if I do?”
“Both of those cartels were wiped out,” Matias said. “Months ago.”
The man with the binoculars perked up. This was news to him. He’d been busy, sure, but how could he possibly have missed something on that scale?
In his shock, Besnik didn’t even bother to pretend that he’d already known. “What? How?”
“The Americans,” Matias said, as if that explained everything. “They learned where the leaders would be and took them out at the same time, on opposite sides of the country. There wasn’t a chance for anyone to raise a warning. Without the heads of their families…”
“It was simple for the local government to sweep up the rest,” Besnik finished. “Who would do such a thing?”
“You know as much as I know,” Matias said. Then, he sneered again. “Well, less than me, apparently.”
The Albanian let that insult pass without comment and Matias, surprisingly, didn’t press the advantage. “Did anyone escape the clean-up?”
Matias fished out a smartphone from his riding leathers and navigated through it in silence for a few seconds. When he found what he’d been looking for, he tossed the phone over to Besnik. Despite the man’s age, he snatched it out of the air easily.
“What is this?” Besnik asked.
“Security footage. Most was too corrupted, but there were a few stills. The other cartels have been passing this around to anyone with connections overseas.”
The man with the binoculars barely kept himself from cursing out loud. From this distance, there was no way that he could possibly see what image was on the screen. He allowed himself a second of fury before he forced him to refocus on the conversation.
Besnik examined the phone for several seconds, silently contemplating whatever it was that he saw there. Then, without warning, he lobbed the phone back to Matias who fumbled it from one hand to another for a second or two before he got a solid grip on it. “Three people,” the Albanian said. “When did the Calis or the Morenos start working with Americans?”
Matias shrugged. “Maybe the woman vouched for them?”
The man with the binoculars blinked slowly. Three people…an American and a woman…that meant something. He just couldn’t put his finger immediately on what.
Then it hit him. The Morenos, more so the Calis, would refuse to work with anyone who wasn’t also Hispanic. And he’d seen a group of three people, one of them American and one of them Hispanic, not too long ago. In London, in fact, just before the Hill situation had gone critical. What had their names been, though?
He couldn’t remember. It was possible that he’d never known, in the first place. People tended to use pseudonyms at events like the Green Light Gala.
The rest of the conversation between Besnik and Matias was boring, compared to the conversation about the Calis and the Morenos. He propped the directional microphone against a rock and connected its output cord into a recording device. He could go through it later, when he was comfortable. For right now, the man with the binoculars felt that he needed to take a second to process what he’d just heard.
It was possible that he’d come across the information that everyone in the global criminal underworld wanted more than anything else. He might be the only one who could connect the dots, if only he could find out a little bit more.
The Texan pushed his Stetson up, wiped his forehead clean of sweat, and smiled broadly into the night. If knowledge was power – and he truly believed that it was – then he was only a few breadcrumbs away from the equivalent of a nuclear payload.
He wondered, before he began gathering his equipment, how much someone would be willing to pay for that?